The Collapse of Civil Society

March 07, 1993|By JEFFREY M. LANDAW

The Berlin Wall came down in the bicentennial of the French Revolution. It called up Wordsworth's lines about his memories of the fall of the Bastille:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very Heaven!

But less than four years after the Wall fell, we can appreciate the disillusion with terror and chaos that had turned Wordsworth, by the time he wrote those lines, into a bitter Tory.

In the '50s and '60s, America seemed to be on the edge of a Golden Age; we wound up with AIDS, crack and children having children. Europe seemed to be due for a Golden Age with the end of the Soviet empire; it wound up with the revival of pillage, torture and mass rape and murder as tools of political organization. What went wrong? How did all this promise turn into Hobbes' war of each against all?

Our agony has run longer than Europe's, and it's less directly rooted in politics, except -- what an exception -- as race is politics. But the two sorrows bear a family resemblance, which Clarence Thomas, of all people, helped to bring out.

It was a shame that Judge Thomas' confirmation to the Supreme Court turned into such a squalid farce -- shameful whether he was a liar and a cad who brazenly turned his character flaws into his greatest assets or the victim of a surrealistically hideous smear campaign. What was lost in all the charges and countercharges were the often surprising things he had to say.

One of those things was Justice Thomas' description of the racial caste system under which he'd grown up as the nearest thing most Americans would ever know to totalitarianism. Take that as a starting point and many other insights about Europe's troubles, and ours, fall into place.

Timothy Garton Ash of the London Spectator, reporting from Eastern Europe in the '80s, compared daily life under communism to that in Britain during World War II. When West German intellectuals visited East Germany, he wrote in one of the essays collected in his book "The Uses of Adversity:"

"They often find a warmth of welcome and an intensity of human relations that contrast favorably with the 'atomization' and 'alienation' of life in the capitalist West. It is easy for the intellectual tourist to take this for a positive product of the communist system. But if you actually live in East Germany, you realize that this community spirit is a product of the system only ++ in the sense that the community spirit of Londoners in the blitz was a product of the war. . . . The casual visitor, who may not notice that people are particularly cordial just because he comes from the West, enjoys the camaraderies without the hardship."

Mr. Garton Ash's analysis suggests what Nicholas Lemann and other critics have said of life in officially segregated America: Oppression created an artificial solidarity that helped restrain the community's wilder members and keep its weaker ones afloat. With no Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Bilbo, Wallace, Bull Connor to keep the pressure on, society fell apart, as some churchmen have observed the churches tend to do when the state stops persecuting them.

What Mr. Garton Ash said in his book that East Europe's dissidents were trying to do was re-establish "civil society" -- "the entire range of social associations, ties, and activities independent of the state." The authorities who oppressed those dissidents had tried strenuously to replace civil society with the state and the Party. Civil society vanished from our cities for perhaps more complex reasons.

In the extraordinary prosperity of postwar America, business, government and even the arts combined to create what Nathan Glazer called "the revolution of rising entitlements." But the experts failed to plan for the boom's end. They assumed either, like supply-side Republicans a generation later, that they had abolished the business cycle, or that in the absence of a declared war, people could be cajoled into making equal sacrifices instead of defending what they had. Bill Clinton looks as if he's going to give the second of these assumptions a very hard test.

Poverty programs proved to have unintended consequences such as inflaming resentment among both the taxpayers and the beneficiaries while often displacing the families they were intended to help. Meanwhile, the low-skill, high-pay jobs that gave working people entry into the middle class -- driving the political left nearly crazy -- disappeared.

For the best reasons, stable families moved out of the ghettoes, leaving them to the weak and the predators in a downward spiral whose end seems to be nowhere in sight. And the middle class itself, driven by hedonism, youth worship and guilt about its failure to produce utopia, grew ambivalent about enforcing its traditional prudence, self-restraint and deference to experience and authority for its own members, let alone for the poor.

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